100 Days of Silliness

GOP chairman Michael Steele angered Rush Limbaugh, annoys donors, and can't inspire the base—and those are the high points of his first three months, Republicans tell The Daily Beast.

Mike Segar / Reuters

GOP Chairman Michael Steele angered Rush Limbaugh, annoys donors, and can't inspire the base—and those are the high points of his first three months, Republicans tell The Daily Beast.

On Saturday, May 9, Michael Steele marks 100 days as chairman of the Republican National Committee. When Republicans were looking around for a new party leader, they knew they needed someone who would be a dynamic communicator committed to modernizing the party. One of the Bush administration’s biggest failures, many conservatives came to believe, was its inability to communicate conservative principles to the American public.

“A lot of donors seem totally underwhelmed by Steele. Some donors are looking for another organization to donate to.”

Steele was not the hardline conservative candidate; he was supposed to be the symbol of change representing the party that lost the election against a candidate running on change. Since his election, his words have often turned out to be more liability than asset, causing groans on his own side. “Some Republicans are remembering the benefits of a GOP chairman who didn't try to make himself the story,” one Republican strategist told The Daily Beast. “Chairmen like [Ed] Gillespie and [Ken] Mehlman focused on their jobs, not the spotlight, and they were more effective because of it. That was a lesson that Howard Dean eventually learned, too.”

In early March, Steele engaged in a spat with talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, dismissing him as nothing more than “incendiary” “ entertainment.” Shortly after, Steele backed down and apologized, realizing he might have alienated a popular figure, maybe the most popular, for the conservative base. More recently, Steele told GQ magazine that abortion was an “ individual choice” for a woman, flabbergasting conservatives who had been led to believe that he was pro-life. Not seen by conservatives as a trustworthy conservative, he has tried to ingratiate himself by making clear that moderates aren’t welcome in the party.

These gaffes and stumbles don’t count all of his comments that have been just plain silly and cringe-worthy, such as how he wears his “ hat backwards, you know, because that’s how we roll in the Northeast” and how Republicans need to “uptick our image with everyone, including one-armed midgets.”

But the RNC chairman is more than a public spokesman for the party. He also manages a large organization responsible for fundraising, communications, research, field work, and other operations for the party. While those espousing the party line insist he’s effective, others close to the RNC tell a different story.

“Chairman Steele was elected to lead the Republican Party based on his belief in working hand-in-glove with our state parties to win elections and discuss our principles of lower spending and taxes, limited government, and a strong national defense with American families,” RNC Deputy Director of Communications Todd Irons told The Daily Beast. “Chairman Steele has built a solid organization at the RNC to fully support our state parties and candidates heading into important gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey in November, and the 2010 mid-term elections,” Irons added.

However, several Republicans intimate with what is happening at the RNC expressed concern to The Daily Beast about the lack of infrastructure and spending priorities. According to the latest FEC reports, the RNC had just over 100 people on its payroll in March compared to more than 200 people on payroll in March 2007 and nearly 260 in March 2005, both off-election years shortly after new chairmen took over. Key spots remain to be filled, including that of finance director.

One former RNC staffer told me Steele’s decision to fire everyone upon taking office was “one of the dumbest things that he’s done—and that’s saying something,” and faulted the chairman for not aggressively hiring experienced staffers. “It seems like his mission was to not hire anyone who’s worked on a campaign in the last three election cycles,” said the former staffer, adding, “They’re running on a skeleton crew. There are a couple of really important campaigns going on right now that I don’t think they’re really helping to the extent that they probably need to.”

Steele also has yet to purchase any voter-registration data, which can be key to expanding outreach and field operations. In contrast, when Mehlman took over at the RNC in 2005, he spent nearly $55,000 on voter information in his first two months in office. In 2007, then-Chairman Mike Duncan spent almost $14,000 on such data and files during the same period.

One area where the RNC has had a more visible presence is in the area of new media. In March, tech-savvy conservatives were worried when “ the most respected technocrat in the Republican Party,” Cyrus Krohn, resigned from his position as e-campaign director. “A lot of GOP strategists focused on the online end of things were initially concerned about the prospect of Cy departing and being replaced by someone who was more a consultant-type than a technologist, myself included,” former RNC online communications director Liz Mair, who worked for Krohn and is now at New Media Strategies, told The Daily Beast.

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Steele had made communications modernization a focus of his platform and many were concerned that the loss of Krohn was a step in the wrong direction. The party, however, hired Todd Herman to be director of new media. Herman previously served as general manager for media strategy at Microsoft/MSN. Mair called Herman coming on board a “smart decision.” “A lot of observers focused on the RNC's online presence and employment of new media have been pleased to see the unrolling of initiatives like the ‘post your goodbye message to Arlen Specter to our YouTube channel’ one, offering free Flipcams as prizes, by the New Media team,” she said.

When asked about the RNC’s biggest accomplishments during Steele’s first 100 days, spokesman Irons pointed to the fact that the organization had outpaced the DNC in first-quarter fundraising. “The RNC raised $6.7 million in March, a noteworthy increase over its $5.1 million take in February and $5.8 million in contributions during the month of January. The average contribution to the RNC during the first quarter of 2009 was $55.27.”

But a Republican strategist familiar with the situation is worried that this pace might not last. “There is concern among some within the party that the RNC’s ability to raise funds could take a real hit,” the source said. “A lot of donors seem totally underwhelmed by Steele. Some donors are looking for another organization to donate to, and right now, for a lot of them, the [Republican Governors Association] looks like an ideal alternative.”

Over the past few weeks, Steele has been beginning to face a revolt from some committee members after news reports appeared that he spent RNC funds to redecorate his office. Steele recently agreed to a “ secret pact” put together by several current and former RNC members imposing “controls and restraints on how he spends hundreds of millions of dollars in party funds and contracts.”

Privately, however, no Republican with whom The Daily Beast spoke believed that there is any possibility that Steele will step down in the near future, in part because there is no clear successor. RNC committee member Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said Steele “is doing a very good job of trying to revitalize the organization.” About the recent criticisms from other committee members, Greer said they are “simply a continuation of the opposition that existed on Election Day. Any leadership person who would promote that idea is doing a disservice to the party and would be just continuing to promote this idea that we can’t get it together,” he added.

When Steele accepted the RNC chairmanship on January 30, he promised “to grow this party, to strengthen this party.” But by narrowly defining what it means to be a Republican and excluding moderate positions from the party platform may end up being detrimental to growing the party in the long term. “He’s made a tough situation almost impossible at this point,” a former RNC staffer said. “He’s managed a pretty tall task of taking a party in the wilderness even farther out—in the woodshed or something.”

Amanda Terkel is managing editor of ThinkProgress.org and deputy research director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.